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The Criminally Under-Told Story Of The Brave Men Who Prevented Hitler From Attaining A Nuclear Bomb

During WWII, many concerted efforts on the part of the Allies to thwart the Third Reich - and some of them worked. One group, called the Jewish Avengers, took revenge by exacting their own justice. Arguably, the most successful anti-Third Reich mission took place in 1943 and involved destroying a heavy water plant members of the National Socialist German Workers' Party (NSDAP) planned to utilize to create the ultimate weapon: an atomic bomb.

After invading Norway in 1940, the Germans gained control of a heavy water plant called Vemork. Heavy water was a crucial ingredient in the creation of nuclear armaments, and Allied forces were concerned about Hitler getting his hands on the substance. They scouted the best Norwegian military operatives and parachuted them into the middle of the wilderness on a suicide mission to destroy a seemingly impenetrable building surrounded by German soldiers. Miraculously, the mission was a success, and drastically changed the course of WWII.

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  • After Nuclear Fission Was Discovered In 1939, The Race To Create Atomic Armaments Began

    In 1939, scientists discovered nuclear fission, the atomic reaction necessary to create a thermonuclear device. The discovery of nuclear fission opened the gates to the atomic era, changing warfare right on the brink of WWII. Both sides of the conflict were on their way to harnessing nuclear fission; Albert Einstein working with the Allies and Werner Heisenberg working in Germany.

    Soon, the race was on - whichever country could harness nuclear fission into an atomic device first would be victorious. The other side would simply be demolished. 

  • The Germans Were One Element Away From Achieving A Nuclear Device

    To create an A-bomb, you need one key ingredient: heavy water. Heavy water, which requires an immense amount of power, is used to create a nuclear reactor, which in turn is used to create plutonium, the main element needed. According to the Scientific American: 

    Today, we don't hear much about heavy water. Modern nuclear bomb technology has taken other routes. But it was once one of the most rare and dangerous substances in the world.

    Both Britain and Germany came to the realization that heavy water could be used to move toward the creation of the sought-after device. During the race, in the early years of the conflict, there was only one heavy water plant, Vemork, about 100 miles outside of Oslo, Norway. When Germany invaded Norway in 1940, control of the plant became part of their winning deal.

    The Germans soon had access to the only heavy water plant in the world, putting them one crucial step ahead of the Allies. The Allies were unsure exactly how close Germany was to putting the heavy water to work and having an unstoppable device at their disposal, but they knew they needed to put a stop to German advancement. 

  • Norway Was The First Country With A Heavy Water Plant

    Vemork's heavy water plant, the first in the world, was the brainchild of Norwegian chemistry professor Leif Tronstad. In 1933, Tronstad realized that the conditions at a Norsk Hydro plant in Rjukan were suitable for producing heavy water. Vemork sat in the middle of the Norwegian wilderness, surrounded by ice, snow, and little else. The remote fortress was only reachable by a single-lane suspension bridge and was surrounded by a bitterly cold mountain plateau. 

    When the Allies decided to take Vemork back, they faced brutal conditions and needed inside knowledge of the plant. Tronstad, who had escaped Norway after Germany took control, was key to Vemork's destruction and subsequent prevention of a Third Reich atomic device. 

  • The Allies Were Stopped From Destroying The Plant By The Very Chemists Who Designed It

    After the Allies caught wind that Germany was invested in producing heavy water, they knew they needed to act fast. America's initial plan in 1942 was to blast the plant, but they were warned against doing so by the very people who designed Vemork. Tronstad himself said that leveling Vemork would result in catastrophe, namely a ton of avoidable civilian deaths. 

    The plant was designed to be indestructible, and it would take the masterminds behind its creation to eventually destroy it. Thus, the plan was to have a team of Norwegian "saboteurs," who would, with Tronstad's advice and expertise, topple Vemork themselves.

  • A Team Of British-Trained Norwegian Operatives, Known As The Saboteurs, Were Enlisted To Destroy The Plant
    Photo: Leif Ørnelund / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

    A Team Of British-Trained Norwegian Operatives, Known As The Saboteurs, Were Enlisted To Destroy The Plant

    The terrain surrounding Vemork was hostile, harsh, and would be incredibly foreign and difficult to navigate for British and American operatives. It was decided that a team of Norwegians, trained by British forces, would take on the nearly impossible task of destroying Vemork from the inside out.

    The Norwegian operatives were trained by a secret British unit called Special Operations Executive, or SOE. The SOE, which trained its operatives in Scotland, specialized in "the ministry of ungentlemanly warfare." The team sent to Vemork consisted of nine men, the oldest of them only 31, all led by a 23-year-old named Joachim Ronneberg

  • An Advance Team Of Saboteurs Survived In The Winter Wilderness For Months
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    An Advance Team Of Saboteurs Survived In The Winter Wilderness For Months

    Since Vemork was not only incredibly remote but heavily protected by German guards, the team in charge of what was called Operation Gunnerside had to be creative and resilient. In October of 1942, four men made up part of the advance team. The men parachuted into the Norwegian wilderness near the plant in October 1942, months before the planned February 1943 attack, in order to prepare.

    In the cold of winter, the men collected intelligence and surveilled the area while subsisting on reindeer meat and moss, traveling by ski, and living on a rocky, snowy mountain plateau. By February, the entire team - nine men in total - were together in the Norwegian wilderness. Operation Gunnerside could fully commence.